Poop Swastika: A Triumph of Conceptual Art

Mark Zuckerberg by KATSU (The Hole, New York City)

Human excrement as art is not a new concept. One of the more famous examples is that of Italian artist Piero Manzoni, who in 1961 preserved his own fecal waste in 90 small tin cans and sold each off, priced by weight based on the value of gold at the time.

One of the more recent notable examples of fecal-matter masterpieces is a depiction of Facebook founder and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, whose portrait was completed in smeared feces by a New York–based street artist going by the name of KATSU. The artwork went on public display earlier this year in New York City and became a viral hit on Internet blogs.

Probably the most famous example of using bodily waste to convey a stirring social message and provoke reactionary commentary was that of Piss Christ, Andres Serrano’s notorious photo display of a crucifix soaked in a jar of what was purportedly the artist’s own urine. The now-infamous work drew ire — and in some cases acts of vandalism — from Christian and conservative groups. But the outrage on the right did nothing to lessen — indeed probably only increased — the flow of praise that international critics heaped on Piss Christ, which they lauded as bold and visionary. Among the work’s numerous accolades was an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The latest example of human waste as art comes in the form of Poop Swastika, which purportedly appeared on display at the University of Missouri campus, in a dormitory restroom. Poop Swastika has caused quite the reaction among students and faculty and provoked controversy enough for major media outlets to pick up the story. Very few details of the work or the artist have emerged, but the mystery has only added to the allure. Was the artist a student on campus? A faculty member? How was the work done? Did the artist use his own fecal matter, or was it an assistant? Why did the artist choose that particular campus or restroom? No one is sure, and the questions are sure to burden art critics for the foreseeable future as they ponder the social ramifications of this master-work. 

And as with other cases of body-waste art, Poop Swastika is not without its angry, devoted critics. The artwork drew outrage from social-justice campus-reform groups and even inspired one student to stage a hunger strike. Players from the Missouri football team threatened to boycott over the work; in short order, the threat led to the resignation of the university’s president.

Conceptual art — claiming the title of ‘avant-garde’ for nearly a century now — is traditionally meant to disrupt our normal perceptions.

Was this the reaction the creator of Poop Swastika was hoping for? Maybe, maybe not. The artist’s motivations remain obscure. Conceptual art — claiming the title of “avant-garde” for nearly a century now — is traditionally meant to disrupt our normal perceptions and the normal order of things in society.

Adding to the enigma surrounding the attraction, no photos of this now-revered piece have yet emerged, making both the art world and the media called in to cover Poop Swastika even more curious about the work’s origins and the brave artist who dared challenge prevailing norms.

Melissa Click, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Missouri, was so outraged by Poop Swastika, and by related reports of racism on the campus, that she joined student protesters who were calling for the president’s resignation. Not only did Click protest, but she demanded the media be barred from reporting on the protest.

Click later issued an apology for her actions and has since resigned, but perhaps we can take a larger lesson on the role of art: Artistic creation cannot and should not always be viewed through a political lens, even if the works elicit a political reaction. What if the artist’s intentions were to explore the role of symbols in the realm of human emotion? The swastika could simply have been a comment on the dangerous representations of trigger warnings and safe spaces — and how the promise of perfect “safety” encourages paranoia and even violence.

Perhaps the creator was a student who could not afford a traditional artist’s space and found the blank white walls of the campus-dormitory restroom to be an inviting canvas. The restroom in which Poop Swastika was presented could, in fact, act as a safe space for the artist him or herself, allowing the master’s work to unfold in private without the dangers of the outside world’s interference.

#share#Some may find the image of a Nazi symbol painted in fecal matter to be offensive, but we should examine the message that lies beneath the surface of the image, while striving to release our own biases against art. The startling complexion of a brown swastika against a white background certainly seems to recall the motivations behind a crucifix submerged in urine.  

Based on the reactions to Poop Swastika on both social and traditional media, the artist is unlikely to come forward and will probably remain a figure shrouded in mystery. A curious public awaits to see whether his or her works will appear again, either at another college campus or perhaps, because of the passions the work has aroused, in a New York City gallery.

— Stephen L. Miller is a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He publishes The Wilderness, which focuses on viral politics and social media.


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